Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
The Left-Hander, opera in two acts (2013) [119:27]
Russian language libretto by the composer after Nikolai Leskov’s novella ‘The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea’
Andrei Popov (tenor) – The Left-Hander
Edward Tsanga (bass baritone) – Ataman Platov
Vladimir Moroz (baritone) – Alexander I /Nicholas I
Kristina Alieva (soprano) – The Flea
Maria Maksakova (mezzo) – Princess Charlotte
Andrei Spekhov (baritone) – English Under-Skipper
Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus/Valery Gergiev
Alexei Stepanyuk – Stage Director
Alexander Orlov – Set Designer
Irina Cherednikova – Costume Designer
Alexander Sivaev – Lighting Designer
Anna Matison – Video director
rec. 27/28 July 2013 in the Mariinsky II Opera Hall, St. Petersburg, Russia
MARIINSKY MAR0588 Blu-ray/DVD [119.00]

One of the most renowned composers in the world, Rodion Shchedrin was commissioned by the Mariinsky Theatre to write his opera ‘The Left-Hander’ to celebrate the 60th birthday of Valery Gergiev, its Artistic & General Director. Premièred on June 2014, this performance of ‘The Left-Hander’ was filmed live on 27/28 July 2013 at the Mariinsky complex’s second stage, the Mariinsky II, which opened in June the same year. It was released as an audio recording last year (review). In 2014, just prior to the première of ‘The Left-Hander’, I interviewed the Moscow born Shchedrin at his Munich apartment, where he has for a number of years divided his time between the Bavarian capital city and Moscow. Shchedrin was clearly looking forward to the world première of the ‘The Left-Hander’ at St. Petersburg and was enthusiastic about its forthcoming UK premiere at the Barbican, with semi-staged performance.

Shchedrin wrote his own libretto to ‘The Left-Hander’, which looks at Englishmen from a Russian perspective based on Nikolai Leskov’s whimsical novella ‘The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea’. Leskov was also the author of the 1865 novel ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’, which caused so much controversy in the hands of Shostakovich. Basically, the core of Leskov’s story concerns Levsha, the left-handed craftsman of Tula, who is used in a game of one-upmanship between Imperial Russia and England arising from the gift of a microscopic mechanical flea to Tsar Alexander, made by English armourers. Not to be outdone, and to go one better, the Tsar orders the craftsman of Tula (the Left-Hander known as Lefty) to modify and improve the flea and has it returned to London.

Director Alexei Stepanyuk has adopted an accessible approach, grand and eloquent, that tends to keep things moving well enough, even though the libretto at times drags its heels. With no fixed historical period, set designer Alexander Orlov tends to represent Russia as much as possible by freezing cold weather, fur hats, winter coats, scarves etc. He makes effective use of video projection of near permanent snow falls, sea storms and of course the pervasive drunkenness which in the end completely ruins Lefty’s reputation. Costumes by Irina Cherednikova are a mix of eras from what looks like Imperial Russia in the early part of the nineteenth century (Tsar Alexander I) to modern Russia in the last decade of the twentieth century (Princess Charlotte). London is represented by a red theme, most notably with a troupe of twelve women dancers dressed in what looks like the Queen’s Guards in full-dress uniform with red jackets complete with bearskins and rifles. Orlov has also provided six traditional brightly lit red telephone boxes and, in the background, Big Ben with a glowing red clock face. During one racy dance scene, the Guards remove their tunic and trousers to reveal red lingerie.

All this fell into place much better when I viewed the video a second time. The humour made greater sense and overall it was much more enjoyable. The main protagonists are well chosen native Russian speakers who clearly buy into the unsubtle, satirical world of Leskov and Shchedrin. As Lefty, the character uncomfortable with his newly elevated status, lyric tenor Andrei Popov, although sometimes uncomfortably exposed, delivers with a wholehearted approach. Baritone Vladimir Moroz is in his element in the dual parts of Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I. In smooth and powerful voice, the immaculate Moroz displays all the necessary style and air of superiority needed for a convincing portrayal. Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the British monarch George III, is played with remarkable gutsiness by Maria Maksakova. Pouting and parading around in a pink pencil skirt suit with matching hat, the blue-blooded redhead could have come straight out of a 1980s Royal Ascot scene. But, while deserving ten out of ten for effort, the mezzo-soprano’s sonorous voice has an uncomfortable tone when pushed.

Another confident performance is given by compelling bass-baritone Edward Tsanga. decked out in a royal blue tunic as the Cossack Ataman Platov. He is as steadfast in voice as in swinging his sabre. As the Flea, the audience took well to the artistry of soprano Kristina Alieva. She demonstrates prowess in her high register and confident coloratura. It’s hard not to smile at the six-armed Flea’s curious garb, a white woollen shawl pulled over her head and shoulders, sparkling sequinned white stockings and what looked like white fur-covered Wellington boots. In his black Sou'wester and white oilskin jacket, red-bearded English mariner (the under-skipper), played by baritone Andrei Spekhov, doesn’t put a foot wrong, with firm tone and an ideal depth of intensity. The Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus under Valery Gergiev are in complete accord with Shchedrin’s dramatic, colourful and often striking scoring. Several Russian folk instruments are included: the domra (balalaika/mandolin), the duduk (double-reed flute) and the bayan (accordion). Compelling, too, are the six orchestral interludes which, together with the memorable opening trumpet fanfare, would make a fine orchestral suite.

Video director Anna Matison certainly employs the cameras actively, using a large number of close-ups. Less to my taste is the way the subject frequently goes in and out of focus. Described as a ‘double play’, this set contains separate DVD and Blu-ray discs, which is how the Mariinsky label now presents its new releases. Taken from live performances at Mariinsky II, the sound quality greatly favours the orchestra, especially the brass and percussion, over the singing. This necessitates lots of tiresome volume adjustment. It is slightly – but only very slightly – less marked on the DVD. A satisfyingly high standard of picture quality is to be found on both formats, with a somewhat sharper image on the Blu-ray. The accompanying booklet contains a synopsis and some information on Shchedrin, the conductor and five of the cast. A lack of a full track listing/index points in the booklet is disappointing although this can be navigated on screen. This is a terrific release, with Shchedrin triumphantly merging politics, art and satirical humour in this lavishly produced opera.

Michael Cookson

Video details

Picture Format: DVD 9, 16.9 (NTSC)
Sound Format:
a) LPCM Stereo 48kHz/16bit
b) DTS 5.1 48kHz
Picture Format: BD50, 16:9 High Definition 1080i (NTSC)
Sound Format:
a) LPCM Stereo 2.0ch 48kHz/24bit
b) DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 48kHz
Subtitles: GB, DE, FR, KOR, JP

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